Stories of Women in the Cemetery: Getting the Balance Right

Article by Christopher Dawson, MPHA (Qld)

I recently co-hosted an 'International Women's Day' night tour at South Brisbane Cemetery, along with cemetery historian Tracey Olivieri. We basically split the tour, doing alternating spots, and did our own research for the graves we were stopping at. It was about halfway through the tour when it hit me just how downright grim my stories were. Probably around the time that one of the people on the tour asked me if there were going to be any 'upbeat' stories.

'The Women of South Brisbane Cemetery' tour, 9 March 2018. (C. Dawson)

To be fair, I had managed to make something of a running joke about the tone of my material, from the point that my first stop opened with 'this is going to be a bit depressing', followed by the stories of three women who had committed suicide by throwing themselves in the Brisbane River (at different times).

Then came the story of Ellen Thomson - hanged for murder - and then a woman who died after having an illegal abortion. By this point I was reconsidering some of my remaining material, including the woman who had four of her kids die before she went blind, and the alcoholic woman who was a prisoner when she gave birth to a stillborn child and then died herself three days later. Last of all was the woman who drowned herself in the river a few months after she saw her toddler burned to death.

As I said, downright grim stuff. I did drop a couple of stories, mainly to save some time, but it does raise important questions about how we tell the stories of women in history. It might be a cemetery, but should I be taking it easy on the 'women as victims' angle?

To begin with, I do have a natural preference for the 'dramatic' in these tours. I'm not comfortable telling mundane stories; 'This guy was an accountant from Yeronga, and then he died of old age'. I need my stories to have a bit of a kick to them. 100% accurate, but memorable. Other cemetery tours I have created include 'Hangman's Walk' - exclusively about capital punishment - and 'Gruesome Graveyards' which features stories of hangings, grave robbing, murder, and general bad luck. So the tour content was partly related to my usual approach.

There is, however, a problem that we in the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery have been aware of for some time. When researching a place like 'our' cemetery - which was largely shunned as a burial ground by the rich and famous of colonial Queensland - it can be difficult to find the stories of many of the women in there. Because of the regressive social conditions of the time, most of them were in the background, working in the home, while on their headstones many are defined simply as 'wives' or 'mothers'.

This was an era when women didn't have many basic rights, such as voting, or take prominent roles when a man could do the job. For example, the first female MP in Queensland was elected in 1929. She lost in 1932 and there wasn't another one until 1966. Before then, there would have been hundreds of male politicians, who are now clogging up the best spots in cemeteries all around Brisbane.

The women you notice the most in the colonial records tend to have died particularly tragic deaths or were the spouse or parent of a successful man. There are, however, quite a few who were independently successful or performed inspiring acts. And there are others whose life experiences can tell us a lot about everyday life in old Queensland. We did mention some of those in the tour, but perhaps there should more be of these stories.

At the same time, we don't want to hide the fact that life was often hard for women, sometimes too hard, simply because they were women. This can still be the case today. And telling the sad stories of wasted lives gives more context to the more inspiring stories. The task is to find the right balance.

Coming out of the International Women's Day tour, one of the jobs of the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery will be to research and document the stories of more of the women interred in the cemetery. We will be hosting a couple more 'women's tours' in the coming months, and hopefully we'll have a few more success stories that don't end - fingers crossed - with the subjects jumping in the Brisbane River.